O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
Last week I wrote about Earth 2 in the context of its Supermen. The most recent issue, Earth 2 #26, brought some closure to the Apokolips-invasion plot and subplots, and this week’s Worlds’ Finest #26 does much the same for its displaced heroines. The September issues of both series will jump forward five years to tie into Futures End, and October brings the Earth 2: World’s End weekly miniseries.
Therefore, as these were the last couple of issues before everything will no doubt start to change, I want to talk this week about Earth-2’s unique place in the New 52’s multiverse, and what it might say about DC’s approach to legacy characters.
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Of course, the original Earth-Two was central to the legacy structure in the eras of both the infinite Multiverse and the singular DC-Earth. To be sure, when the Multiverse was around, the various Flashes, Supermen, Wonder Women, etc., weren’t legacies per se, but counterparts, with the originals on Earth-Two and the “modern” versions on Earth-One. However, eventually there were legacies on both Earths. In the 1970s, Power Girl and Huntress were introduced as the successors of the Earth-Two Superman and Batman (and in Huntress’ case, Catwoman as well). In the ‘80s, they went from the Justice Society to Infinity Inc., a team of newly minted legacy heroes. Meanwhile, on Earth-One, Dick Grayson assumed the new identity of Nightwing (ganked from a Kryptonian caped crusader, something I’m surprised Grant Morrison hasn’t made more of) after passing along the Robin name and costume to Jason Todd.
Naturally, the legacy structure really took hold after the various parallel universes were consolidated. That provided an in-story justification for characters who passed along their heroic identities from generation to generation, like the various Flashes, Hawkmen (yes, I know) and Starmen. However, it didn’t change the fact that the Golden Age versions took back seats to their successors. After 1956, Jay Garrick was never simply “the” Flash the way that Barry Allen and Wally West were. Eventually, Alan Scott stopped being (the Golden Age) Green Lantern and started calling himself Sentinel.
With that in mind, having entirely new versions of these characters on the New 52 Earth-2 comes with a tradeoff. Jay and Alan no longer have the foundation (or the weight, if you will) of all those stories; but neither are they seen as subordinate and/or ancillary to Barry or the Green Lantern Corps. The New 52 Earth-2 has also inverted the old unspoken DC-Earth legacy rule that prohibited Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman from passing along their code names and costumes permanently. Today the deceased Earth-2 versions each have at least one successor: Huntress, Batman II, Power Girl, Val-Zod, and Fury.
In short, between its appropriation of various Golden Age trappings and its relative isolation from the main DC-Earth (which I think Morrison is still calling “Universe Designate Zero”), the New 52 Earth-2 is set up pretty well to grow some distinctly different versions of familiar DC folk. Even its Power Girl, Mister Terrific, and Huntress have backstories which set them apart from their Earth-Two predecessors. Granted, for the past year or so Earth-2 has been preoccupied with the second Apokolips invasion, and it’s about to get wrecked in yet another interdimensional war, but it still has potential.
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Speaking of backstories, it seems to me that readers come to the Golden Age characters in a few different ways. The original readership (1940s kids) are at least in their 80s now; but I’m guessing they are a very small part of today’s comics-reading population. Subsequent generations would likely have been able to compare the Golden Agers with their counterparts in the Silver Age and beyond. Indeed, folks who were only introduced to the Golden Agers in the context of the legacy structure may well see them more as points on a continuum.
In fact, until the New 52 came along, the Golden Age characters were almost artifacts — not quite anachronisms, and certainly not obsolete, but tied to a well-defined period in DC history. It’s a variation on the “Gwen Stacy Problem,” which is what I call defining a character by a particular milestone. For longstanding legacy characters, their transition from one identity to the next is their version of the GSP. The New 52 now has its Wally West, and the expectation is that he’ll become the Flash at some point.
With the Golden Agers, though, it’s not so much a matter of expectation as of implication. When a Golden Ager appeared in a post-Silver Age story, it was implicitly the same character — or close enough — who appeared in those Golden Age comics. That allowed creative teams to build on those comics, and it provided an entry point for readers curious about the characters’ histories, but like any continuity-based story, it involved a learning curve.
By jettisoning all that, the New 52 Earth 2 and Worlds’ Finest set up a different set of hurdles. Writers James Robinson, Paul Levitz, and Tom Taylor, and artists including Nicola Scott, George Pérez, Kevin Maguire, R.B. Silva and Scott McDaniel had to convince readers that the story of an alternate Earth was worth their time. This was both a return to the original Earth-Two concept and a reversal of decades of shared-universe structure. On the original Earth-Two, the original versions of Superman and Batman appeared in the late ‘30s, married their old flames in the ‘50s, and came out of retirement in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Many of their colleagues followed the same basic path. However, when everything was consolidated into a single Earth, these original versions were put aside in favor of their present-day counterparts. It wasn’t a huge deal (although there were some bumps, particularly with Power Girl’s revised origin), since plenty of non-duplicative Golden Agers survived the transition.
The New 52 Earth-2 kept the idea of an older Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Their careers didn’t go back to FDR, but they were each old enough to have adult children. However, it then made the new crop of “wonders” part of the second generation of Earth-2 superheroes. (Come to think of it, that’s almost like a condensed version of the Legion of Super-Heroes being inspired by Superboy.) In that respect, Earth 2 and Worlds’ Finest asked not just “what if the JSA started today?” but “what happens to the superheroes after the Big Three are killed?” Earth-2’s characters are grounded — both directly and indirectly — in relation to DC’s Trinity, but not in a way that invites constant comparisons to the main-line New 52 Trinity. All this means that Earth-2’s characters have to stand on their own merits, not as continuations of their Golden Age selves, and not necessarily in comparison to any of their successors.
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That, in turn, leads us to one of the more fascinating corners of this whole affair: the treatment of the Huntress. Reintroduced in a six-issue miniseries not long into the overall New 52 relaunch, it was revealed in the last few pages of issue #6 that she was Earth-2’s Helena Wayne, not the Helena Bertinelli character readers had come to know in the pages of Birds of Prey. This produced some strong reactions from fans who (like fans of Wally West) were fond of the more recent version. This is perfectly understandable. Helena Bertinelli was created in the late 1980s as a way to bring back the erased-from-existence Helena Wayne. After her short-lived ongoing series ended, she bounced around the Bat-books for a few years until BOP gave her more regular exposure. The rest is history. With her appearances on Justice League Unlimited and Arrow, she’s had multimedia success as well. However, in the New 52 she’s out of costume and in a significantly different role, as Dick Grayson’s Spyral handler in Grayson.
This raises all sorts of issues about reader expectations. After all, no one expects Dick to stay a spy for any extended period of time, and it’s only a little less likely that DC would give a well-liked character like Helena Bertinelli such a radical makeover. The new Worlds’ Finest clears the way for a new Power Girl of Universe Designate Zero; and assuming Helena Wayne makes it through the upcoming calamities, there could well be two distinct Huntresses on two different Earths.
Otherwise, you get into the old “why use that name?” argument. Why call new characters Helena Bertinelli or Wally West if you’re not planning on giving them their traditional roles? These don’t necessarily have to do with costumes or codenames. Originally, Helena came from a mob family and vowed revenge on organized crime, while Wally was the president of his local Flash fan club and didn’t know his aunt was dating his hero. (She didn’t know either, at the time.) We might therefore say that the characters themselves have particular qualities which would keep them out of costume for a while.
Still, I suspect it takes a lot to tamp down those expectations. DC has teased Ray Palmer’s Atom career for almost three years now, giving him size-changing technology and a blue-and-red jumpsuit but (as far as I know) without ever calling him “the Atom.” I suppose the point of the New 52 Huntress miniseries was a similar sort of extended tease, with the hope that readers would be more intrigued by the idea of “Batman’s daughter” than the Huntress who’d been around for the past twenty years. Honestly, I’m not sure how well either Helena has done with readers. (Gail Simone seems to have made Ms. Wayne an honorary Bird of Prey by including her in this last Batgirl arc.) Having Worlds’ Finest change formats to flashback adventures of the Earth-2 Superman and Batman doesn’t bode well for Helena Wayne; and it’s probably too soon to gauge the popularity of Grayson’s Helena.
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If this really is the beginning of the end for Earth 2, it’s a shame. As I said last week, I’ve enjoyed the book. Still, in thinking about how it turned the original Earth-Two concept inside-out, I’m frustrated that it didn’t do more with the counterparts it created. From the late ‘30s to the early ‘50s, the Golden Age characters had to justify their existences month in and month out. Opening up the Multiverse gave them a second chance at life, but as an adjunct to newer, sleeker versions who were already pretty popular with their own readers. Later, for a quarter-century, they were part of the larger fabric of DC history, and eventually stood alongside three other superheroic generations. The Earth-2 of the New 52 arguably arrived with the same kinds of expectations as its characters — why call it Earth-2 if it’s not about World War II superheroes? — but I think all involved have done yeoman’s work to make this Earth-2 stand alone. Here’s hoping it’ll find a way to continue.
And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 15:
NOTES: I’ve had a busy week, so not much time to come up with number-related material. However, it’s pretty clear the Masked Superman is not the actual Superman, with all the un-Super slang he throws around. I still think he’s Wildfire.
Also, the scene on the rainswept rooftop reminded me pretty strongly of a similar scene early in “Reign of the Supermen,” where Lois confronts the Cyborg Supes and comes away convinced that he’s the real thing. Dan Jurgens wrote and drew that sequence, and I’m pretty sure he wrote this one too.
I could have gone a long time without picturing the New 52 Hawkman hooking up with someone. This is the latest indignity DC has visited upon Amethyst.
This issue did tell us why Mister Miracle looks so calm in his cell: he’s been escaping the whole time. I don’t know who “Rita Loomis” is, but Oswald Loomis is the Prankster, an old Superman villain.
As soon as Frankenstein put on Hawkman’s Nth-metal arm, I figured it would have something to do with his eventual cyborg-ification, and this issue presents another step down that path. There’s a lot of marking time going on in Futures End — and I’m guessing that’ll continue at least until we get into September — so this and the Mister Miracle appearance are pleasant departures.
NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Chin-stroking! Elbow-pounding! Load-lifting! Finger-pointing! And … the Engineer attacks!